Visually and performatively stylized melodrama, slangy and retro and dreamily lit, like a much better Grease, or a nonmusical West Side Story. Rusty James (Matt Dillon in his third S.E. Hinton movie in a row) mopes around with his tough friend Smokey (Nicolas Cage, his second year in the movies) and his nerdy David Cronenberg-looking friend Steve (Vincent Spano of City of Hope) and Nice Guy Eddie, speaking wistfully about Rusty’s long-missing older brother, local-legend gangster The Motorcycle Boy. Rusty James has a hot girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane) who’s into him, but he cheats and disappears and flakes around. Rusty James is trying to keep alive the gang wars he barely remembers from his brother’s day, and just as he’s losing a fight, The Motorcycle Boy dramatically reappears. This is the earliest I’ve seen Mickey Rourke, four years before Angel Heart, doing his gentle/tough handsome-zen thing – everyone in town agrees he’s crazy, but we don’t see him acting crazy, except maybe when he liberates every animal in the pet store.

It’s clear from the tone of the thing that somebody is doomed – probably Rourke (and yup, sure enough). The cops aren’t happy to see him back, but a heroin-addict substitute teacher starts hanging around, and old rivalries start simmering. It’s kind of a hangout movie where not much happens, but it feels tense most of the time. Dillon’s character is kind of an idiot, and his idol brother’s return blows up his worldview that things were better in the tough old days. In the end Rourke has died, Cage has stolen the girl and said he’d take over the gang if there even was a gang, Rusty James rides his brother’s motorcycle to the ocean, and it sounds like Wall of Voodoo over the credits but I guess it was that guy from The Police.

I keep meaning to watch the four hours of extras on the Criterion disc, but haven’t found the time. The Outsiders was also a Coppola-shot S.E. Hinton-written gang movie made the same year, and I should have double-featured these. The cast in this film is impressive – the brothers’ shitty alcoholic dad is Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne is a gang go-between, Tom Waits a bartender. William Smith, who starred in the real David Cronenberg’s Fast Company, is the mustache cop who uses inappropriate force to kill Rourke after the pet store incident.

Rumble brothers with grudge cop:

Stories don’t just lead into each other like in The Saragossa Manuscript – they melt and morph into each other, thanks to codirector Evan Johnson’s digital manipulations, which don’t replace Maddin’s usual bag of tricks, but join the choppy editing and texture fetish and everything else. Some of his early movies had somnambulist rhythms, but this one is ecstatic from start to finish.

Had to watch this a couple times before I could report in.

Second time through, I noted the order of stories:

How to Take a Bath, with Louis Negin

Submarine: Blasting Jelly and Flapjacks

Starring Negin again with Ukranian Greg Hlady, panicky Alex Bisping, Andre the Giant-reminiscent Kent McQuaid, and mysteriously-appearing woodsman Cesare (Roy Dupuis of Mesrine and Screamers).

M. Sicinski:

Like the men in the submarine, The Forbidden Room has an overall mood of anxiety and despair, in the sense that we are asked to grapple with its heady delirium of character trajectories and stunted arcs, all the while searching in vain for some absent center, the organizing “captain” who is supposed to pull it all together. In its endless ruptures and disconnections, The Forbidden Room brings us up short, placing us back in that capsule where the image is a form of confinement, a shortness of breath.

Cowardly Saplingjacks

Cesare sets out to rescue the kidnapped Margo (Clara Furey)

Cave of the Red Wolves

with lead wolf Noel Burton, bladder slapping and boggling puzzlements!

Amnesiac Singing Flowergirl

Margo again, with mysterious necklace woman Marie Brassard (sinister Jackie from Vic + Flo Saw a Bear) and patient Pancho (Victor Andres Trelles Turgeon)

The Final Derriere

with Sparks, Udo Kier (returning from Keyhole) as a man plagued by bottoms, Master Passion Geraldine Chaplin, and the Lust Specialist (Le Havre star Andre Wilms)

Red Wolves / Woodsmen / Submarine / Bath / Submarine

Quick return.

Squid Theft / Volcano Sacrifice

With Margo, squid thief Romano Orzari and Lost Generation attorney Céline Bonnier (The Far Side of the Moon)

D. Ehrlich:

The Forbidden Room may (or may not) be inventing narratives from thin air, but whatever history these abandoned projects might have had is completely supplanted by the present Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) invents for them. These stories belong to him now. The Forbidden Room may forego the hypnotically autobiographical thrust of recent efforts like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain!, but it feels no less personal for it.

Mill Seeks Gardener

With shed-sleeper Slimane Dazi and unpredictable runaway Jacques Nolot

Injured Motorcyclist at Bone Hospital

Caroline Dhavernas and Paul Ahmarani

Doctor kidnapped by skeleton insurance defrauders

Lewis Furey (Margo’s father IRL) as The Skull-Faced Man, and Eric Robidoux as the bone doctor’s long-lost brother who is also a bone doctor.

Psychiatrist and madman aboard train

Gregory Hlady again, Romano Orzari again, and Karine Vanasse (Polytechnique) as Florence LaBadie

Florence’s Inner Child

Sienna Mazzone as young Florence with crazy mother Kathia Rock

Parental Neglect / Madness / Murder / Amnesia

Bone Hospital / Insurance Defrauders
Mill / Criminal / Doctor
Volcanic Island / Squid Theft / Submarine / Bath

“I haven’t finished telling you: the forest… the snow… the convict… the birthday”

Woodsman Gathers New Allies

Kyle Gatehouse as Man With Upturned Face, Neil Napier as Man With Stones On His Feet and Victor Turgeon again as Listening Man – these are the same actors who played the Saplingjacks earlier, and again they don’t enter the cave with Cesare.

Margo and Aswang The Vampire

M. D’Angelo:

The Forbidden Room was shot mostly at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, piecemeal, in front of a live audience, following which Maddin and Johnson artfully distressed the digital footage and added priceless intertitles. The project took advantage of whichever actors were available to it on a given day.

Elevator Man Unprepared For Wife’s Birthday Kills His Butler

All-star segment with Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier and Amira Casar (Anatomy of Hell, Piano Tuner of Earthquakes).

D. Ehrlich:

[Amalric] gleefully indulges in Maddin’s pure and peerlessly florid sense of melodrama, which here becomes a mechanism for foolhardy and paranoid men to ruin their lives as they attempt to rescue, love, or murder the beautiful women who didn’t ask for their help.

Dead Butler Oedipal Mustache Flashback

Maybe my favorite segment, with Maria de Medeiros (Saddest Music in the World) as the Blind Mother and more mentions of flapjacks.

Ukranian Radio War Drama

With Stranger by the Lake star Christophe Paou as the prisoner

Mustache / Return of the Dead Father

Diplomat Memoirs of Cursed Janus-Head

M. Peranson:

Together, Maddin and Johnson have crafted a formal masterwork jolted by digital after effects, recreating the look of decaying nitrate stock, shape-shifting the image with multiple superimpositions and variegated colour fields (the general look resembling decayed two-strip Technicolor), and compositing swirling transitions that connect (or bury) one film within the other (and the other, and the other). To try and describe “what happens” in The Forbidden Room is both forbidding and beside the point, for the 130-minute film stands more as an interminable, (in)completed object on its own, like the work of one of its main influences, the French poet, novelist and playwright Raymond Roussel (from whom Maddin and Johnson borrow their technique of parenthetical asides); one comes to understand this object, and what it’s trying to accomplish, only while watching it.

Peranson’s writeup is from the Toronto Film Festival, after which nine minutes got removed from the movie. Since nobody at the festivals was able to exhaustively account for all the stories within stories, it’s impossible to track down what got lost. It seems, though, that any lost footage (and more) can be seen in the Seances.

Andreas Apergis and his fiancee Sophia Desmarais (Curling)

Night Auction Doppelganger

featuring LUG-LUG, hideous impulse incarnate!

Stealing Mother’s Laudanum

Charlotte Rampling as Amalric’s Mother, Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) as his girlfriend.

Maddin (in an essential Cinema Scope interview) on the film’s 2+ hour length:

We could have easily had a 75-minute version … but viewers that like it, we wanted to feel like we’d broken their brains, really left a physical impression on them, left them exhausted. Hopefully exhilarated and exhausted, in a good way. We wanted “too much” to still be insufficient … it would be nice if it came out in one endless ribbon, that, like John Ashbery’s poetry, you just snip off for a beginning and an end, and just ask the audience how much they want.

Dead Father / Elevator Birthday Murder Plot / Margo and Aswang / Woodsmen
Red Wolves are Dead, Rescue is Cancelled
Submarine / The Forbidden Room / Book of Climaxes

Bath.

Wonderful 16mm screening at Emory, but not well-received by the students and regulars who came to be entertained. Silly students and regulars, it is not a university’s job to entertain you!

Scorpio Rising – 1964, Kenneth Anger
Couldn’t remember if I’d seen this before, but of course I have… opening credits bedazzled onto a motorcycle jacket were immediately familiar. Despite the nazi imagery and comparisons between bikers headed for a gay orgy and Jesus and his disciples, I heard no complaints. I think people enjoyed the juxtapositions (well-prepared presenter Andy warned us about ’em in advance) and grooved on the hot 60’s rock radio score (kept hearing “oh I love this song” from behind me).

Lemon – 1969, Hollis Frampton
Lovely film, second time I’ve seen it. Should be shown every year. Only comment overheard: “I don’t know about the second movie. Just a lemon.” Mostly people were quiet about this one. I choose to believe that they were awed into silence, contemplating its light play and imagining possible deeper meanings, and not quietly wondering what they needed to pick up at the grocery store. A movie can feel much longer or shorter than it is. Lemon is supposed to be seven or eight minutes long, but I say it feels like four, five tops.

Zorns Lemma – 1970, Hollis Frampton
(no apostrophe, in tribute to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake)
Okay, this one feels its length… its exact length, measured second by second.
1) Black screen, voice reads us some children’s poetry, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Roman alphabet (so I=J and U=V) to make 24.
2) The meat of the piece, 24 seconds, one letter per section. First section we see each letter once. Then a word beginning with each letter. Then again (different shots, different words). Again. Again, but X has been replaced by a shaking, roaring fire. Again, with the fire. Again. Again. Again, but Z has been replaced by the ocean, flat horizon, a wave rolling out to sea. Again with the fire and the ocean. Again. 24 letters at 24 frames per second (though it’s 25 seconds if you consider that each alphabet section is followed by a second of black, a shout-out to our PAL-locked buds in Europe who see everything on video a little faster than we do). And on until, some 40 minutes later, each letter has been replaced (C was the last to go). No audio except the groaning and laughter of my fellow filmgoers.
3) Sound and Vision together! A visual cooling-down after part two, two people and their dog walk across a snowy field from bottom of the screen to top as six alternating female voices on the soundtrack read us some philosophical writings about light – at precisely one word per second.
4) The audience members (those who hadn’t walked out) were horrified!

D. Sallitt liked it:

The bizarre experience of taking a test during a movie was completely distracting, so that I absorbed the materiality and the narrativity of the alphabet images only indirectly, during brief rest periods. Somehow this strengthened my investment in the images: I don’t think I would have found the “letter H” guy’s walk around the corner very interesting in itself, but that corner took on mythic spatial qualities for me.

Hahaha, I know what he means about the corner. Of the little movies that replace each letter, seen in one-second increments, some stay pretty much the same (the fire, the tide) and some progress as time passes (someone peels and eats a tangerine, this guy walks towards a corner). Everyone breathes a little sigh of relief when, finally after a half hour, the man disappears around the corner in a one-second bit toward the end. Next bit is just the corner. Next one the man comes back around the corner! Must be considered one of the biggest twist endings in non-narrative avant-garde cinema.

excerpts from S. MacDonald:

Even a partial understanding of Frampton’s films requires a rudimentary sense of the history of mathematics, science, and technology and of the literary and fine arts. … Nowhere is Frampton’s assumption that his viewers can be expected to be informed, or to inform themselves, more obvious than in Zorns Lemma, the challenging film that established Frampton as a major contributor to alternative cinema. Zorns Lemma combines several areas of intellectual and esthetic interest Frampton had explored in his early photographic work and in his early films. His fascination with mathematics, and in particular with set theory … is the source of the title Zorns Lemma. Mathematician Max Zorn’s “lemma,” the eleventh axiom of set theory, proposes that, given a set of sets, there is a further set composed of a representative item from each set. Zorns Lemma doesn’t exactly demonstrate Zorn’s lemma, but Frampton’s allusion to the “existential axiom” is appropriate, given his use of a set of sets to structure the film. Frampton’s longtime interest in languages and literature is equally evident in Zorns Lemma. …

The tripartite structure of Zorns Lemma can be understood in various ways, at least two of them roughly suggestive of early film history. The progression from darkness, to individual onesecond units of imagery, to long, continuous shots. … If the second section of Zorns Lemma is Muybridgian – not only in its general use of the serial, but because the one-second bits of the replacement images “analyze” continuous activities or motions in a manner analogous to Muybridge’s motion studies – the final section is Lumieresque.

As set after set of alphabetized words and their environments is experienced, it is difficult not to develop a sense of Frampton’s experience making the film. The film’s collection of hundreds of environmental words suggests that the film was a labor of love, and an index of the filmmaker’s extended travels around lower Manhattan, looking for, finding, and recording the words.

For most viewers the experience of “learning” the correspondences is fatiguing – especially since the process of watching sixty shots a minute for more than forty-seven minutes is grueling by itself – but the laborious process has been willingly (if somewhat grudgingly) accepted. The experience of learning the correspondences is the central analogy of the second section. It replicates the experience of learning that set of terms and rules necessary for the exploration of any intellectual field.

In a philosophic sense, Grosseteste’s treatise [spoken during the third segment] is an attempt to understand the entirety of the perceivable world as an emblem of the spiritual. And, on the literal level, what Grosseteste describes in the eleventh century is demonstrated by the twentieth-century film image: For a filmmaker, after all, light is the “first bodily form,” which, literally, draws out “matter along with itself into a mass as great as the fabric of the world.”